Tom has been unequivocal about his faithfulness to his beloved Antoine’s. At birthday time, there is no contest as to where we go. But in recent years, Tom doesn’t seem to consider his birthday complete now without a follow-up celebration at Arnaud’s. He has often said that Arnaud’s is the better restaurant, but Antoine’s is the emotional favorite. So last year we followed the big 70th at Antoine’s with a smaller family dinner at Arnaud's. It was at that dinner that I felt the restaurant to be suffering mightily from the new world ushered in by 2020. The differences were subtle, but definitely there.
Starting with the bread. Arnaud’s has always had the best version of the classic New Orleans cap bread. The bread served now is really ordinary, definitely not cap bread, which we were told last year they can’t get any more. And the Shrimp Arnaud (shrimp remoulade) was off, but the most glaring example of changes brought on by COVID was the Trout Amandine. I always get two of the three items in what the restaurant’s publicist always referred to as the “Arnaud’s Happy Meal.” Last year’s version of Trout Amandine was a congealed mess of almonds.
I am used to seeing the local classic served with a light brown butter sauce napped over the fried fish, with plenty of shaved, almonds free-floating in the sauce. There was no sauce and just a mountain of slivered almond glop straddling the fish.
A year has passed since these COVID disappointments of last year, and I eagerly awaited a return to the standard excellence here.
We arrived at opening time to a foyer already full of patrons looking forward to a special dinner. It was Final Four Saturday, and the crowd was touristy-looking, and very young. Within minutes of our arrival, they began calling all parties who had checked in. They were met by a waiter at their table to begin the experience.
And so were we. Tom responded to the drinks question with a yes, and before I knew it, a Sazerac was on its way. I am embarrassed to admit I have never seen a Sazerac in a glass.
It wasn’t in the glass very long. I was afraid it would get knocked over, so I picked it up and my hands didn’t properly grip it. Within seconds it was on Tom’s pants and the floor. Good thing it was such a ridiculous pour. It barely got anything wet.
When a new one returned I had a chance to really notice the drink. If there was ¼ inch of liquid in that glass I would be surprised. I didn’t ask the waiter about that, but I did ask the audience on the show, and I was told that what I described is a Sazerac. Why so little? Is the alcohol so strong? Is it the taste? I may have to try one just to see how it is done elsewhere. I was also told by the audience that everywhere you can get a Sazerac it will be different.
The soufflee potatoes, which we think are the best, were indeed the best last year, but less so this year. The Bearnaise sauce I would finish with a spoon all by itself. It was impossibly perky with just the right tarragon notes.
Tom had his favorite oyster dish anywhere, (which to my observation is really just the one he is eating currently.) Here that dish is Oysters Arnaud. These were smaller oysters than usual but just as great, according to Tom.
This year my Shrimp Arnaud was much better than last year’s version. I really like the presentation of these, which seems more upscale than in the past. A little bit of frisee lettuce greens graced the plate. Frisee makes everything fancier, to me, and this presentation used to include shredded iceberg.
For entrees, I was torn between my usual Trout Amandine, which I wanted to get to see if it had returned to normal, or the crab cake, which I also like. And I gave a tiny bit of thought to a chicken dish with Veronique sauce, mainly to try a sauce with grapes. Seems odd, but I am curious.
When the waiter told us the trout would be sheepshead for the evening, I almost got one of these other dishes I was considering, not because I don’t like sheepshead, but because I wanted to see it the real way. In the end, though, I do like sheepshead enough that I just went with it.
The 2022 version of the Amandine was even gloppier than last year’s version. Just like last year, there was no sauce on this fish. But I really like the brown butter sauce with Amandine, so I asked for some Meuniere, when I should have asked for the clear brown butter. Classic Meuniere is lost on me. It is too thick and too brown, but this time I was grateful for it. The now-familiar mound of congealed butter exploding with almonds was there. Unfortunately.
Tom’s redfish entree was a mess. It had a lot of things on it, and they were piled closely together in a mound, making individual ingredients unrecognizable. He liked it well enough, but not well enough to finish it.
While we were sitting, a procession of long-time waiters and managers stopped over to say hi. One of them mentioned the difficulties of doing business in the new COVID era. It wasn’t anything we haven’t heard, but sometimes the numbers do pop out. He said he had 12 interviews set up for prospective new employees, and one might show up. I said something about “these kids today”, and he shook his head sadly. “It’s not just the kids anymore.”
So I’m sure that explains the new lamentable substandard (for Arnaud’s) we have seen here, now twice. When new people have to be trained in a constant rotation, levels of expected excellence are sometimes not met. This has resulted in two dinners I would consider “mixed.” Now, “substandard Arnaud’s” is still better than most everything else out there, but there are no hiccups at this place.
Souffle potatoes and Oysters Arnaud’s were in keeping with the requisite Arnaud’s level of execution. The Shrimp Arnaud was also perfect. The entrees were both disappointing. The difference between these last two meals and every other meal we’ve had there is that something was amiss. At Arnaud’s, consistency could always be counted on in addition to deliciousness and perfect service. But it was only a part of the meal that gave us pause.
What surprised us most this time was that Tom couldn’t finish his meal with his namesake bread pudding. Bread Pudding Fitzmorris is not only the best bread pudding out there, it has Tom’s name on it. We can’t visit there without getting it.
And then we were informed that it is now only available on the brunch menu. Obviously, another COVID development, and a painful one for the person whose name graces the bread pudding. We hope this changes.
It has been a really tough period for the restaurant industry in general in America, but here in New Orleans in particular, with vax mandates and hurricanes heaped on top of the standard COVID difficulties. Restaurants like Arnaud’s and the other Grand Dames have over a century of tradition and excellence to uphold, so more is expected of them, which may or may not be fair. It will be interesting to watch as this unfortunate drama we’re all in continues to unfold.